Social Media, Employees and Reputational Risks

Organizational risk does not exist in a vacuum – social forces have a direct and immediate impact on company risks, especially when it comes to employee conduct.  Social media has transformed our society, making information sharing instantaneous. For companies, social media risks exist on internal communications platforms and on individual employee platforms outside of work.  Many companies find the issue so difficult and complex that they effectively put their collective heads in the sand and hope for the best. Hope is not a risk mitigation strategy.

Businesses have to step carefully in this area.  The complex set of risks can be mind-numbing.  Companies have to recognize the importance of data privacy risks, human resource issues and ultimately significant reputational risks.

A fundamental requirement to mitigating risks is to establish a comprehensive social media policy. But this policy comes with a significant limitation – it governs communications on company-owned platforms, meaning it does not extend to individual employees’ personal accounts.  However, employees are often prohibited in some form from accessing their personal social media accounts from their company devices and spending unreasonable amounts of time at work on their personal accounts. 

Business social media accounts are controlled by communications and public relations employees.  Employees that respond to or comment on any postings or comments have to conform to basic social media policies. 

Individual social media activity on personal accounts present significant risks for misconduct.  Employee surveys consistently report that large percentages of employees spend some amount of time at work on their personal social media accounts. In this regard, employees may use their personal devices to conduct such activity.  This raises significant risks that companies are unable to monitor or regulate.  Human resource officers may act only in response to egregious situations where employee performance suffers as a direct result of employees who devote substantial time on their personal phones. If a company has a BYOD policy to permit business and personal use of an employee’s personal devices, the risks are compounded.

The COVID-19 pandemic and work-from-home arrangements brought even more complexity to compliance in this area. The dividing line between work  and personal was obscured by difficult work arrangements.  Social media compliance policies were even more important in providing directions to employees on permissible behavior. 

Employees who post content about their companies on their individual social media accounts is a very common scenario.  It has been estimated that almost 50 percent of employees will post some content about their employer on personal social media accounts. Whatever  avenue is used, employees are subject to certain restrictions such as disclosure of trade secrets, intellectual property, and other restrictions on the disclosure of confidential and proprietary information.  When employees communicate about company issues outside of these clearly restricted topics, employees may pose reputational risks.  For example, when an employee complains about an un-named supervisor at his/her company, such information may taint the company’s reputation.  Monitoring this activity is all but impossible given the prevalent use of social media for all human interactions, business transactions and social transformation.

Consider these important survey trends – two-thirds of employees regularly check their social media at work; 75 percent of employees check their social media at least one time a time; almost half of employees check their social media at lunch; and one-third check social media during breaks at work.

Employees who promote company branding on their individual accounts can be a force-multiplier for corporate branding.  Brand messages from employees far exceed the range and success of corporate social media accounts and strategies.  In other words, if employees promote corporate messages, the reach of their individual accounts can have a dramatic impact on the company’s messaging efforts.  For this reason alone, a social media policy to the extent it educates employees can provide positive benefits to employee conduct on individual, non-company, accounts. This can be a real benefit for company promotion and messaging efforts.

The downside is obvious.  Employee misconduct or improper messages can have a real negative impact on a company’s brand.  This is the delicate balance that companies face in this era of social media communications.

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